Virtual museums to whet appetites for Abu Dhabi’s treasure troves

The future of the capital’s museums depends on connecting the physical and the digital, and digitisation of collections should not be seen as discouraging people from visiting the actual museums.

A woman looks at Osman Hamdi Bey’s 1878 painting A Young Emir Studying at the Louvre Museum in Paris in April 2014. Francois Guillot / AFP
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Abu Dhabi’s museums need to embrace digitization to showcase their offerings and attract visitors from home and abroad, according to an expert from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The future of the capital’s museums depends on connecting the physical and the digital, and digitization of collections should not be seen as discouraging people from visiting the actual museums, said Sree Sreenivasan, the Met’s first chief digital officer. The appointment made last year highlights the importance of digital content for global museums.

“You have to make the virtual museums so enticing that people will want to come to see the physical museums,” he said. “It’s all about storytelling.”

Digitization of the museums in Abu Dhabi is an important way to spread the word about the new attractions.

“You are a new cultural capital of the world, you have to tell all the stories of the construction, and build the excitement before you need it so that it’s here when you need it,” Mr Sreenivasan said.

“Louvre and Guggenheim are going to have a major effect on the overall tourism numbers in Abu Dhabi and these will be a milestone, not only in the cultural history, but also in the economic and business histories of Abu Dhabi.”

The emirate is increasing its tourist attractions and museums and those planned at Saadiyat Island are some of the most-eagerly awaited, which along with an airport expansion, are expected to boost tourism revenues.

The capital is developing three international museums in collaboration with Agence France Muséums, The British Museum and the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island Cultural District is expected to be complete this year. It will be home to archaeological objects, fine and decorative arts. Zayed National Museum is expected to open in 2016. Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will be dedicated to contemporary art and culture and open in 2017.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi has in place a policy of digitalization of its artworks. Its collection has already undergone partial digitisation. On its website is a section titled Explore the Collection, where visitors can preview some of the museum's artefacts such as Osman Hamdi Bey's 1878 painting A Young Emir Studying, an octagonal box from the Tang dynasty from 8th century China and a 10th century sculpture of Shiva from India.

“The digitalization and the 3D scanning are fantastic tools to study the artworks and to see them in a different way,” according to a spokeswoman for Louvre Abu Dhabi. “These images are essential to the collection management. It is a new way to present the artworks for the public, who can get a better understanding of them.”

Over the past decade, museums across the world have been digitizing their collections to increase visitors.

“The old ways of marketing for museums used to be advertising and public relations. Now you need more than that to tell stories, and social media is a critical element in that,” Mr Sreenivasan said.

The digitisation of museums will not replace the programmes that lending of collections across the world, and the Met expects to continue its extensive loan programme.

The Met has more 1 million objects across 17 departments, including its collection of European paintings from the 13th through the 19th centuries, including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, Monet, Cézanne and Van Gogh.

One of the collections on show, which can be previewed on the Met’s website, is an Indian jewellery collection belonging to Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani, the chief executive of the Qatari holding company Qipco. The group has interests in banks, airlines and property among other sectors.

The exhibition is called Treasures from India: Jewels from the Al Thani Collection and is open to the public in New York until January 25. The collection includes Mughal masterpieces, Art Deco objects by Cartier and jewellery spanning 400 years.

The Met has 400,000 images that can be downloaded for non-commercial purposes for free as of now.

“That doesn’t mean we won’t have premium products some day,” Mr Sreenivasan said.

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